LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Fireflag - Alligator FlagEven Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. [2 Corinthians11:14b-15 (NLT)]

With its enormous leaves and delicate purple flowers, one of my favorite native Florida plants is the Thalia geniculata; its common name is Fireflag. The plant can be as tall as ten feet and its huge leaves are visible from a distance. Since it grows in standing water, the leaves can indicate or “flag” an area where one might find safety in case of fire. Fireflag has another name, as well: Alligator-Flag. Anyplace in Florida where there is enough standing water for Thalia geniculata to grow also has enough standing water for alligators! If one is ever caught in a fire in the Everglades, it would be wise to remember both names of this plant before seeking refuge amidst its leaves! We wouldn’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire or, in this case, out of the fire into a gator’s mouth!

This plant reminds us that we need to be cautious when a firestorm of trouble descends. In an effort to escape our problems, it’s easy to jump into even more difficulty. It’s not just alligators that lurk in what appears to be a safe refuge; Satan does too! He knows when we are most vulnerable and he’s right there to offer his version of safety and comfort. As we attempt to flee from our trouble, there will be temptations to seek solace in the wrong people, listen to poor advice, compromise our morals or abandon our faith. That “angel in disguise” offering comfort, assistance or easy answers may well be a fallen angel!

Rather than taking refuge in alligator infested waters or other treacherous places, we must turn first to God. With Him at our side, we are never alone nor is there a need to run away from our problems. He will comfort and guide us so we can face our troubles with confidence, hope, and even thanks.

Trust is not a passive state of mind. It is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold on the promises of God and cling to them despite the adversity that at times seeks to overwhelms us. [Jerry Bridges (Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts)]

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. [Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. [Psalm 91:14-15 (NLT)]

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BATTLES

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

columbineI prayed for Pearl for over a year. This beautiful toddler had Stage-4 cancer and her bones, brain, and internal organs were riddled with the disease’s treacherous cells. Her prognosis was bleak and there were times she nearly lost her life to the effects of the various remedies rather than the cancer. That Pearl is alive and cancer free today is nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, she and her family went through a very dark valley to get to this place of victory. I’m sure, if given a choice, they would have preferred God to have miraculously healed her prior to the long battle she fought for over a year.

The Old Testament is filled with conflicts. In a few instances, the Israelites were given victory without ever having to go into combat. 2 Chronicles 20 tells of the time God promised Jehoshaphat the battle was God’s. At the very moment the people began to praise Him, the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mt. Seir started fighting among themselves. By the time the army of Judah arrived, every one of their enemies was dead. 2 Kings 19 tells of a night when 185,000 enemy Assyrian soldiers were struck dead by an angel of the Lord. When the survivors awoke to the corpse-filled camp, they retreated to Nineveh where they remained. Because God took His people around the dark valley those times, the battles were won without engaging in combat or suffering loss.

For the most part, however, God’s assurance of victory rarely meant there would be no struggle. Yes, the walls of Jericho fell but, when the Israelites charged into the city with their swords and captured it, it’s hard to believe the people of Jericho didn’t defend themselves vigorously. Although the Israelites defeated them, Scripture never tells us they suffered no battle injuries or fatalities. In Joshua 10:2, God assured Joshua of victory over the Amorites but that conquest didn’t come easily. They fought so long and hard that Joshua had to ask God to prolong the day until they’d defeated their enemies. The spoils of war may have gone to the victors but, surely, they came at a cost and not every Israelite safely returned home that day. Even when we’re victorious, every battle leaves scars of one kind or another.

God could defeat armies without using any of His soldiers but He often sent His people into battle. I have no doubt that God could have miraculously cured Pearl without her and her family having to suffer through a year of painful expensive treatment and the agony of never knowing what the next procedure or test would bring. But, like the armies of Israel and Judah, they had to go through the dark valley and into battle before victoriously coming out on the other side.

The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in our troubles and trials because they lead to patient endurance which leads to maturity of character. I imagine Pearl’s family felt there had been more than enough character building long before her suffering ended. Nevertheless, they remained faithful and hopeful because they knew they were never alone in that dark valley. The battle was neither Pearl’s nor theirs; it was God’s.

We do not live in a perfect world. Although we are assured of victory, we are not assured of a battle-free life nor are we assured of victory while on this side of the grass. We will be faced with trials, temptations, loss, struggle, disease, suffering, and death. That God has won the war does not mean His Christian soldiers won’t ever have to fight! Nevertheless, we are victorious!

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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KILLING THE MESSENGER

Then the leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and King Joash ordered that they stone him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s Temple. That was how King Joash repaid Jehoiada for his loyalty—by killing his son. Zechariah’s last words as he died were, “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!” [2 Chronicles 24:21-22 (NLT)]

“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” sings Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the musical The Wiz as she tells the Winkies she’ll accept any news as long as it’s good. In the Old Testament, we find that same unwillingness to hear bad news on the part of Judah’s and Israel’s kings. What they didn’t seem to understand was that, while they could kill the messenger, they couldn’t kill the message.

Being a prophet was a risky business and Zechariah wasn’t the only prophet who suffered or died because his message was unwelcome. When Hanani was sent by God to rebuke King Asa for allying Judah with Aram, the enraged king responded by putting the prophet in stocks and imprisoning him. Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment on Judah for its disobedience. Not wanting to believe that such a condemning prophecy could come from God, the people called him a traitor and demanded his death. Reminding them that Micah had given a similar prophecy, the elders stepped in and Jeremiah’s life was spared. Although he escaped death that time, the prophet suffered beatings, imprisonment, and being put in stocks before being killed in Egypt. After Uriah prophesied against the evil in Judah, King Jehoiakim had him hunted down and killed. Wanting to wipe out the worship of the Lord and replace it with Baal worship, Jezebel sought to kill Elijah; although he escaped death, several other of God’s prophets weren’t so fortunate. Not wanting to hear John the Baptist’s bad news, Herodias urged Salome to demand his severed head on a plate.

The common theme of the prophets was repentance – turn from your evil ways and back to the Lord. For the most part, the typical response was like that of Evillene: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” We still have the words of those prophets and much of their censure applies to us today. Moreover, many of their prophecies remain unfulfilled and we’d best not turn a deaf ear to them. Like Evillene, we only want to hear what we want to hear but God doesn’t work that way; He tells us what we need to hear!

When reading the words of the prophets, think of how they apply to the world in which we live: a world plagued with poverty, deficient health care, food insufficiency, human rights violations, climate change, diminishing resources, religious conflicts, genocide, wars, lack of economic opportunity and security, corruption, inequality, poor sanitation and water insecurity to name a few. Those problems are not that different from the ones addressed by the prophets thousands of years ago.

We no longer kill the prophets; we just ignore them. Let us learn from the fall of Israel and Judah; ignoring God is done at our own peril.

The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it. [George Orwell]

Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. … If you will only obey me, you will have plenty to eat. But if you turn away and refuse to listen, you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Isaiah 1:16-17,19-20 (NLT)]

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IN PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY

We broke camp at the Ahava Canal on April 19 and started off to Jerusalem. And the gracious hand of our God protected us and saved us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived safely in Jerusalem. [Ezra 8:31-32a (NLT)]

Bryce - Losee CanyonAfter years of exile, the Jews were finally returning home from their captivity in Babylon. Ezra assembled a group of 1,500 men and their families and led the second emigration back to Jerusalem. It would take about four months for the over 5,000 people to make the 900 mile journey across the desert. Since they were transporting about 30 tons of silver, gold, and bronze along with wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt, there was serious danger from marauding bandits.

When Persia’s King Artaxerxes offered Ezra an armed escort, he refused. Having assured the king that God’s hand of protection was all they needed, it would have been embarrassing and hypocritical to then accept military help. The Judeans couldn’t just “talk the talk” about the Hebrew God, they had to “walk the walk” and live as if they truly believed Ezra’s words and God’s promises.

Instead of trusting in soldiers, Ezra chose to trust in God. Although he was confident in God, Ezra did not take His protection for granted. He gave orders for the people to fast and earnestly pray that God would take care of them. Knowing the trip could be disastrous without God’s protection, they committed themselves to trusting in God alone. This choice was a strong test of everyone’s faith. It’s remarkable that two chapters in the book of Ezra are written about their preparation for the trip, but just a few sentences tell about the journey itself and their safe arrival. Perhaps, if we spent more time in prayer and faith preparing for our life’s journeys, they would be as free of difficulty as Ezra’s.

Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door;
Words are so easily spoken,
Prayer without faith is like a boat without an oar.
Have faith when you speak to the Master,
That’s all he asks you for.
Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door.
[Samuel T. Scott & Robert L. Sande]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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